Millville, N.J., Loves Mike Trout

Who cares if he now plays for the Los Angeles Angels? In this working-class town near the Jersey shore, the blue-collar Mike Trout is not only the best young athlete in baseball—he's a hometown hero.

A baseball diamond in Millville New Jersey where Los Angeles Angel Mike Trout played as a youngster. Photo by Jeff Fusco for Philadelphia magazine.

A baseball diamond in Millville New Jersey where Los Angeles Angel Mike Trout played as a youngster. Photo by Jeff Fusco

Though it’s a Tuesday night and the baseball season is just six weeks old, seats are hard to find at Sidelines, a sports bar deep in South Jersey. Men and women are draped in jerseys, and the comely bartenders smile from beneath their ball caps. All conversation stops when the reason they’ve gathered together appears on the high-definition TVs and digs into the dirt in the batter’s box. With his team holding a 3-1 lead in the third inning, he takes a big cut, slugging one deep to left field. He runs like someone’s chasing him and slides safely into second. Judging by the crowd’s reaction here, you’d think this was a playoff game. They’re still Phillies fans in Millville, but these folks are dressed in Los Angeles Angels gear and rooting for their hometown hero, Mike Trout.

“I can’t wait to see him charge the mound one of these days and give someone a real South Jersey ass-whuppin’,” says Tim Shannon, whose house is pockmarked with dents from when Trout would launch stones a hundred feet with a Wiffle ball bat. The guy hoping for a bench-clearing brawl is also Millville’s mayor.

Welcome to “Anaheim East,” as one patron calls it. Deep in the heart of Phillies territory, Millville is the only two-team baseball town in the Delaware Valley. That’s solely thanks to the historic ascendance of 21-year-old Trout, who redefined “phenom” last year. No one in the history of Major League Baseball put up numbers like he did in his rookie season: .326 batting average, 129 runs scored, 49 stolen bags and 30 home runs. He was named the American League Rookie of the Year and lost the AL Most Valuable Player title only because Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown in 45 years—and plenty of baseball analysts still think Trout deserved the MVP honors. All that from a kid barely out of high school.

Of course, the locals wish he was roaming the outfield at Citizens Bank Park, especially since the typical first pitch in L.A. is at 10 p.m. on the East Coast. “We don’t sleep,” says Bob Reed, whose son played with Trout in high school. “It’s doubleheaders every night. You watch the Phillies and Mikey.”

As Trout’s star has ascended, he’s shared a sliver of the national spotlight with the working-class town near the Jersey Shore that he still calls home. (The All-Star spent the winter in his parents’ basement.) Sleep deprivation aside, everywhere you turn in Millville, Trout’s impact is felt—in ways as big as the billboards he now graces, and in others that are much harder to perceive.

Fans celebrate every play Trout makes like it’s in a playoff game.

Fans celebrate every play Trout makes like it’s in a playoff game. Photo by Jeff Fusco

Everyone here has a Trout story. Unlike most fish tales, these don’t need much embellishment, considering the legendary status that Trouty or Mikey, as he’s variously known, has already achieved. Mayor Shannon’s office at the end of Millville’s business district could double as a memorabilia shop, and he has more Trout stories than most in town. At age 11, the slugger was already talented enough to play with older boys. After hitting his first home run against them, he went home and ran next door to Shannon’s house with the ball in hand.

“You’re my biggest fan,” Trout said. “I want you to have it.”

“Mikey, I can’t take this.”

“That’s okay,” the kid told him. “I’m gonna hit some more.” That ball, autographed the night Trout was drafted by the Angels seven years later, sits on Shannon’s desk.

The youngest of three, Trout was raised by his parents, Jeff and Debbie, who both worked for the school district. His natural swing comes from his father, who still holds hitting records at the University of Delaware and played minor-league ball for the Twins under Charlie Manuel. (A friend recently told the elder Trout that Manuel said he’s still one of the best hitters he’s ever coached. “If that’s true,” Jeff said, “I made up for it as a lousy fielder.”) Parents knew to move their cars from the Little League outfield parking lot when Mike Trout was in the lineup, lest they risk smashed windshields. By the time he graduated from Millville High School, Trout had set the single-season South Jersey record for home runs.

Despite his obvious talent, no one expected him to dominate in the majors so quickly. But today he’s the definition of a five-tool player: hits for both average and power, a blur on the base paths, has a cannon arm and laser-guided defensive instincts. Trout is often compared to Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals enfant terrible who was also a rookie last year. Their games are similar, but outside the lines, the young stars couldn’t be more different. Harper was known in the minor leagues for wearing eye-black streaked across his face and showing up pitchers; he’s a hothead and a hot dog. Trout is all business—Ch­arlie Hustle version 2.0, with The Dude’s offense and Garry Maddox’s acrobatics in the outfield. Best of all, he does it with a smile on his face and zero ego. If there was a factory cranking out the kind of blue-collar athletes Philly fans worship, Trout would be the prototype.

Millville Mayor Tim Shannon keeps the first home run ball Trout hit as an 11-year-old playing against older boys.

Millville Mayor Tim Shannon keeps the first home run ball Trout hit as an 11-year-old playing against older boys. Photo by Jeff Fusco

One downside to the Phillies winning the World Series in 2008 was that the team’s success pushed it out of the Trout derby. (Though he lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, the Phils made their first selection at 75.) As the window for success closes on the Manuel era, a guy like Trout would be the perfect solution for an abysmal lineup that lacks pop. Trout in a Phillies uniform is a dream that even he had trouble waking up from; in 2009, after he’d already become an Angel, he yelled to his father from his bedroom, “We got Roy Halladay!”

As much as the Phillies need a Mike Trout, so does his hometown. Shannon gives me a tour of Millville in his Dodge Ram truck, with the radio set to country music and a pack of Marlboros stashed in the center console. The goateed six-foot-two mayor played football for the Millville High Thunderbolts in the ’70s, and despite his back-slapping friendliness, he looks like he’d still be a menace on the gridiron. Folks here take a certain pride in calling themselves “Millbillies,” and Shannon smiles at the term. “Down here, you brake for John Deere,” he says with a megaphone-loud laugh. I learned he wasn’t kidding when he painted Millville as a world apart. When I told one of the sports-bar patrons that until Trout came along, the last true superstar athlete from South Jersey was Willingboro’s Carl Lewis, she recoiled. “Anything north of Millville,” she said, “is North Jersey.”

Shannon leads me from High Street, the town’s main drag that’s nearly full of shops and anchored by a newly rebuilt $8.5 million theater, to a few blocks away, where the scenery changes for the worse. The first dominoes in Millville’s decline tipped over when the glass factories shut their doors decades ago and Route 55 diverted Shore traffic; a town of industry and tourism lost much of both. Today, unemployment is 12 percent, more than four points above the national rate. On 2nd Street, houses that served as offices for doctors and lawyers when Shannon grew up are now boarded. “As much as we love this city,” he says, “we have our problems.”

Sports have long served as Millville’s escape. The evidence hangs on the walls at Sidelines, where the jerseys of elite high-school athletes are framed, and inside the Thunderbolt Club on 8th Street, where the Trouts and the Shannons celebrated the night Mike was drafted. “It may sound corny,” Shannon tells me, “but all the way down to t-ball, you’re working to become a ’Bolt.”

That frenzy has transferred itself to Millville’s devotion to Trout. A fleet of sold-out buses is headed to the Bronx to watch the Angels play the Yankees in August. A local radio station was granted rights to broadcast Angels games live. Fans buy the MLB’s television pass so they can record Trout’s games and watch his spectacular catches at a reasonable hour the next day. When the mayor’s 88-year-old mother spent a week in the hospital, one of her first questions to the staff there was whether they had the MLB package. The answer was no. Shannon’s wife Leslie describes her reaction: “She wanted to leave. She was pissed.”

In a town where high school athletes have their jersey’s framed in bars, Trout is the ultimate hero.

In a town where high school athletes have their jersey’s framed in bars, Trout is the ultimate hero. Photo by Jeff Fusco

The love from his hometown is mutual. Trout has donated $20,000 and funneled another $10,000 from one of his endorsement sponsors to his high-school ball field for a makeover and a new moniker—Mike Trout Field. Shannon stops here to show me where Trout would club mammoth home runs, then swear he didn’t get all of the ball. These days, Trout’s hometown buddies still text him after he goes deep for the Angels, asking “Did you get it?” (The answer is always no.)

As much as Trout’s influence is still felt here, there’s a sense he’s beginning to drift, inevitably, as the currents of fame carry him to places far beyond anyone’s definition of South Jersey. “We’ve watched him play more games as an Angel than when he played here,” says Trout’s high-school coach, Roy Hallenbeck, as his team prepares for an afternoon showdown with visiting Hammonton. Hallenbeck speaks with a sense of pride and awe. “It’s hard to picture him here.”

Nearly as celebrated as Trout’s talent is Jim’s Lunch, a cozy diner just off High Street that’s been run by the Maul family for 90 years. It’s one of the few long-term s­uccess stories here. Trout used to drop by after school—and sometimes before—for his usual order: six burgers, no cheese, just Jim’s special sauce. When the All-Star comes home, it’s the one place he can eat in peace, thanks to Rochelle Maul, Jim’s wife, who’s known the Trout family for decades and won’t let anyone approach their son. Trout sits facing the wall at a table in the back corner—a sign that fame makes it a little less easy to come home these days. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way—a friend’s tweet about their outing at a local golf course summoned a crowd of onlookers within minutes.

At the Old Oar House Irish Pub a few blocks away, a waitress with piercings and tattoos serves Guinness sliders to Bob Smith, a burly biker with the Grim Reaper emblazoned on the back of his leather vest. He works in one of the town’s last remaining glass factories and tells me he stopped in for a drink to get out of the rain. Nearly five hours later, he’s still here. Smith’s not the kind of guy you’d expect to be impressed by celebrity, but when I mention Trout, he tells me he ran into the ballplayer at a pet store, of all places. “He didn’t know me from you,” he says. “Couldn’t have been nicer.” Then he shows me a photo on his phone, a snapshot of his grandson, all smiles, with Trout. He pauses and says what I heard echoed all day and night: “That’s one fucking good kid.”

Before my stop at Jim’s Lunch and the bars, Shannon’s tour ended at a group of four houses hidden away in the woods of Millville that serve as their own de facto village. This is where Trout would pound stones with his Wiffle ball bat and tear up the dirt driveway with his go-cart. When Trout stopped by Shannon’s house for his annual Christmas Eve dinner last December, he held court in the kitchen, but all his talk was about hunting and golf, not baseball.

Normality is a relative state for Trout, as Jason Reed, Bob Reed’s son and one of Trout’s high-school teammates, saw on an off-
season golf outing. Trout birdied the 17th hole, then asked if there were any fish in the pond nearby. He borrowed a rod from the course’s owner and, before the group moved on to the final tee, caught three bass. “That’s the kind of year he had,” Jason tells me at Sidelines during the Angels game. “It really blows my mind how he’s stayed so centered.”

Much of the credit for Trout’s humility goes to his parents, who bounce from coast to coast to stay close to their son. Trout seems determined, too. He’s still with his high-school sweetheart, Jessica, and has said he plans to buy a house in Millville. Maybe the beachfront palace in California will come when he signs his first eight- (or nine-) figure contract. For now, Trout’s holding on tight to the Millbilly in him. Another story you’ll hear is how there’s nothing he’d rather do than find a sturdy trunk deep in the woods, set up a tree stand, and sit in silence. Shotgun in hand, he’ll wait patiently for a deer. It’s one of the last places he’s Mikey again.

Trout has donated some $30,000 to build a new high-school ball field.

Trout has donated some $30,000 to build a new high-school ball field. Photo by Jeff Fusco

Could the story really end this way? It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and the Angels are down one run. As Trout makes his way to the plate, the fans at Sidelines cheer him on and rub their hands together in nervous anticipation. He works a full count, showing patience that one onlooker wishes Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins demonstrated more often. The next pitch looks like one he’ll get all of—until it drops off the table as he swings. Strike three, game over.

Though he’s still at or near the top of the Angels’ stat sheets, Trout may never have another year like his first, or live up to comparisons to Mickey Mantle. That’s fine by folks around here. “He’s going to write the book,” says Shannon. “I’m just a willing reader. I can’t wait to see what these chapters entail.”

Beyond all the talk of civic pride, once the game ends, Sidelines owner Ted Lambert tells me a different Mike Trout tale over a Miller Light and a shot of Jägermeister. The burly 42-year-old played basketball and football for the ’Bolts and bought the Trouts’ old house when they moved a couple miles away. Lambert and his eight-year-old son, Theo, didn’t talk sports much, until Theo’s friends found out he sleeps in Trout’s old bedroom, making him something of a schoolyard celebrity. Now the two watch Trout’s games together and scan the box scores daily. As Lambert tells me, “It’s a way to bond with my son that I’d never done before.” There’s no better proof of what Trout means to Millville, and of what sports can mean far beyond the diamond, in ways we may never see.